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The Saudi backlash to Obama’s Atlantic comments has begun

President Obama meets with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Washington. The meeting comes as Saudi Arabia seeks assurances from the U.S. that the Iran nuclear deal comes with the necessary resources to help check Iran’s regional ambitions. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A senior member of the Saudi royal family has criticized comments made by President Obama in a recent magazine article, suggesting that Obama's harsh remarks about the kingdom were a "curveball" in America's relationship with one of its main Arab allies.

Prince Turki al-Faisal denounced Obama's comments in an open letter, "Mr. Obama, we are not 'free riders,'" published Monday in the Arab News newspaper. Prince Turki, a former Saudi ambassador to Washington, appears to be the first senior member of the Saudi royal family to publicly criticize Obama's comments.

In the lengthy Atlantic Magazine feature published last week, Obama told correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg that “free riders" aggravated him. The comment appeared to be largely aimed at America's European and Arab allies who the president felt did not contribute their fair share on the international stage.

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia had appeared to be a particular source of ire for the president, who told Goldberg that "it's complicated" when asked if the Saudis were friends. In comments to Goldberg, Obama appeared to criticize the conservative domestic values of Saudi Arabia and suggest that the nation would have to learn to "share" the Middle East with its regional rival, Iran.

In his letter, Prince Turki takes aim specifically at the "free riders" comment, listing a broad set of examples of that he believes show Saudi leadership. Saudi Arabia's role in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen is cited, as is the recent creation of an "Islamic military alliance" against terrorism. Prince Turki also describes Saudi Arabia as the "biggest contributors to the humanitarian relief efforts to help refugees from Syria, Yemen and Iraq" and makes a pointed reference to Saudi Arabia's purchase of U.S. treasury bonds "that help your country's economy."

Prince Turki writes that Obama's comments about Saudi Arabia may be because he is "petulant" that Saudi Arabia supported the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt or because the U.S. president has "pivoted" to Iran.

Despite the harsh words, the letter ends on a positive note. "We will continue to hold the American people as our ally and don’t forget that when the chips were down" -- such as the 1991 war that drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait -- Saudi and U.S. soldiers "stood shoulder to shoulder," Prince Turki wrote.

Prince Turki has criticized Obama before, accusing him of "failed favoritism towards Israel" in a 2011 column published in The Washington Post. Though he is no longer in the Saudi government, his high-ranking position in the Saudi royal family and his long career in the country's diplomatic and intelligence services lends his opinion weight. Notably, the letter was published in English and addressed directly to the president, suggesting its intended audience was American rather than Saudi.

The Saudi government did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Prince Turki's letter, but Fahad Nazer, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, suggested that many in Saudi Arabia supported the sentiment.

"Many Saudis readily admit that they are now simply awaiting the end of President Obama's tenure," Nazer wrote in an email to WorldViews, "with some boldly proclaiming that 'anyone will be better than Obama.'"

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